“Prayer Works!” and its bossier sibling, “Pray. It Works!” are sayings I’ve seen on everything from tote bags to t-shirts, bumper stickers to Bible studies. You can get a “Prayer Works” apron for the saintly cook in your life or a package of “Prayer Works” pencils for those in need of a little Number Two inspiration. And don’t even get me started on books. Seriously there are about a gazillion books with that phrase or a close variation in the title. In just a quick glance, I saw Prayer Works for Teens, Prayer Works for Business People, and even a Prayer Works for Dieters. (Just might buy that last one, cause really: I can use a little supernatural assistance in that department.)
And I get it; I do. Who among us does not need a reminder that the practice of prayer is an important spiritual discipline? I sure do. But is that what we mean when we say that prayer works?
Too often, I’m afraid it means that we got what we wanted from the prayer. We say it after saying “I got a promotion!” or “My child got into her college of choice!” or even, “My beloved has been healed of cancer!” Then of course, like all good Christians, we turn to social media to Instagram, Tweet, or Facebook the good news, challenging followers to “Pray! It Works!” I think most of us mean well, bless our hearts. We are so grateful for the blessings we’ve received we want to share the good news. We mean “Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus!” But that’s not what we say. Instead, we tap out pithy theology that just doesn’t hold up to the trials of life.
Think about it. No one ever says “Prayer Works,” when they get laid off, or a child’s dreams are crushed, or a loved one doesn’t make it. Yet prayer works then too. It works to bring peace in the storm. It works to bring hope to the hopeless. It works to draw us closer to God. Of course prayer works. It always works.
Over the years, I’ve seen prayer work whether I got the job I wanted or not. I’ve prayed for career outcomes I just knew were within God’s perfect will for my life, praying with all confidence that I had heard God’s voice correctly, only to be devastated when things turned out differently. Prayer helped me deal with disappointment, sort out solutions, and overcome the sense of loss that frequently accompanies career frustrations.
Prayer works as high school graduates accept admission to the last school on their lists, because despite their excellent high school records, their dream schools have refused them. Prayer helps them ask “Why?” Prayer leads them to sing new songs. Prayer reminds them that they are more, so much more, than admissions decisions and test scores.
Prayer worked in 2008 when a child I knew and loved died of cancer. People prayed without ceasing for that little boy to be cured—really cured, on earth, in the flesh. But he passed from this life to the next at just over three and a half years old. My prayers were not answered in the way I wanted. And when that precious boy died, I felt as if my spirit was shipwrecked. But prayer worked. Prayer washed me onto shore, warmed me, sheltered me.
I think the function of prayer is well stated by twentieth century theologian CS Lewis. He said, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God--it changes me.” Wow. Prayer changes humanity? Now that’s some hard work right there. To God be the Glory!
*This piece was first published on June 1, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.
I don't know about you, but my heart is starting hurt. I want to do something, change something, fix something. I'm paralyzed though; it's all too overwhelming.
So I pray. (Good thing this is one thing that doesn't require expertise.) I pray: mumbling and yelling, confused and angry. Yet despite my incoherence, I sense a Presence and I know the Spirit has interceded for me once again.
And miraculously, there is hope.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27 (NRSV)
Check out this post I wrote on the same text several years ago. (If the hyperlink fails, copy and paste this into your browser:
Occasionally, I teach a Bible study class at First Baptist Church of Marion. Every time I teach this class, I am blessed by the leadership of Mr. Z. Mr. Z opens the class with announcements and prayer. It takes him maybe five minutes; impressive on its own, by the way, since many Baptists have been known to stretch this task out to fill up the entire Bible study hour.
I've been teaching there for the last three weeks and have one more Sunday to go in this study. Two weeks ago, our numbers were low--folks out of town, threat of ice and snow, and such--but this past week the class was alive with energy and enthusiasm as members welcomed each other back into the fold. Mr. Z stood behind the podium, looked around at the room full of joy, them looked over at me sitting on the front row.
"Listen to that," he told me, his expression peaceful, but radiant. "Isn't that a joyful noise. I hate to ask them to stop, it sounds so good."
The class quickly quieted, as they always do when Mr Z stands. He welcomed them, got updates on prayer concerns, and made a few class announcements.
"Well," he said, moving right along, "If there's nothing else, then, I'll open us up with prayer and turn it over to Aileen."
Mr. Z has prepared for this moment, his prayer written in longhand on a slip of paper larger than a bookmark but smaller than a legal-sized envelope. He bows his head and begins. As he prays, I feel the Spirit fill the room. His heartfelt, divinely inspired words speak to local concerns, global issues, and the church universal. It's beautiful.
But that's not all. When Mr. Z prays,his words reach into my soul, touching the tender parts of my heart, the vulnerable places that yearn for understanding, hope, and grace. When Mr. Z prays, I get to know God better. And that makes me so grateful.